A woman with restored sight after a successful operation at a hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: Mary Tran / IAPB/VISION 2020 / CC BY-NC-SA

BRUSSELS — A new study from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, finds Rohingya refugees are hit hard by poor eye health and highlights the development gains on offer from tackling the often treatable conditions.

About 48,000 Rohingya, displaced from neighboring Myanmar, and 20,000 locals, received vision screening between Feb. 2018 and Mar. 2019. The work, conducted by NGO Orbis International and a local hospital with support from the Qatar Fund for Development, showed the rate of blindness among Rohingya patients was three-to-six times greater than for local residents between 18 and 59-years-old.

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“This phenomenon appears particularly to reflect the high proportion of Rohingya patients presenting with visually significant cataract in their 20s to 40s,” the authors of the new study wrote. The reasons for this were beyond the scope of the study, though the authors suggested poor access to care and inadequate nutrition as possible causes.

Munir Ahmed, country director at Orbis International Bangladesh, said in a press release that the demand for eye care was also higher than anticipated. “The very high uptake of service in this program — fully 60% of those aged 60 and over in the targeted Rohingya community — is truly extraordinary when you think about the many health priorities they face,” Ahmed said.

Nathan Congdon, director of research at Orbis International, told Devex that this high uptake of vision services from Rohingya was due to their high cataract burden, as well as “the apparent high priority they placed on vision for the well-being of their community.”

Prior research among non-refugee populations shows that children’s education, adults’ productivity, and families’ financial well-being all benefit from treatment of conditions such as refractive error — the need for glasses — and cataract.

The Orbis study, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Medicine, claims to be the largest attempt to document the delivery and demand for comprehensive eye care in a displaced population. However, because the data only captured those at clinics, the study’s authors said they were unable to assess the burden of cataract and other eye diseases across the entire population.

Congdon said the results of a rapid assessment of avoidable blindness in Rohingya and host communities are not yet published, but that the assessment had provided further evidence of the high burden of treatable vision disease among both Rohingya and Cox's Bazar host community.

In crises aid often goes to tackling life-threatening diseases and malnutrition, the study’s authors wrote. However, they explained there is a “growing understanding that addressing non-emergent conditions such as mental disorders and various disabilities can improve the resilience of displaced communities and may thus be a crucial part of comprehensive strategies to help them succeed.”

And unlike noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders — where demand for treatment is also high — the authors wrote that eye care treatments often lead to immediately better vision, and high patient satisfaction.

At least 2.2 billion people worldwide have a vision impairment or blindness, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, at least 1 billion have a preventable impairment or one that has yet to be addressed.

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About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.